Race Weekend Central

Driver vs. Driver Hall of Fame Matchups: Jeff Gordon vs. Tony Stewart

Between them, they hold seven NASCAR Cup titles and 142 wins in the series. Both started in sprint cars, both were tenacious competitors in whatever they raced. Not only do Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart come from open-wheel backgrounds, but both could also win anywhere, anytime in the Cup Series.

This month, we look closer at the drivers who have had their names called to be inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. From the early days through the playoff era, these drivers have been selected among the best ever in the sport. Here, there really are no winners; that’s up to the ages to decide. But there sure are some great conversations about the best of the best.

Wonderboy. Smoke. (OK, Stewart wins hands down if this was a nickname contest.)

The pair has so much in common that they’re a natural comparison: young guns from open wheel, both came to Cup amid high expectations after a less-than-stellar run in the Xfinity Series, both rose to the occasion with high-profile teams and raked in the top finishes.

Who was better? That’s where it gets harder.

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon ran his first NASCAR Cup series race Nov. 15, 1992. This race was also the last Cup race for Richard Petty, coming at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

In three short seasons, Gordon would win his first Cup title. He went on to win three more championships in 1997, ’98 and ’01.

Similarly, when the championship flames from the Rainbow Warrior team began to die out, the smoke of the Tony Stewart No. 20 began to rise. However, Stewart only managed to accumulate three titles in his career, beginning the year after Gordon’s streak ended in 2002, 2005 and 2011.

Gordon’s career pursuits one-up Stewart in nearly every category. He started earlier. Gordon became the youngest driver to ever win a Cup championship at the age of 24, Stewart was 31 when he got his first Cup title.

We all know that race wins really mark a driver’s career, so let us analyze this match-up. Without question, Gordon knows his way around Victory Lane. For years, all fans saw was the Wonder Boy hoisting another trophy. 93 times, to be exact. Compare that to Stewart’s total, which is just over half of Gordon’s total wins, at 49.

Of those 93 wins, Gordon saw the victory lane of some impressive tracks, some multiple times. He won the Great American Race, the Daytona 500, three times, Stewart never won a 500. Gordon won the Brickyard 400 a record five times to Stewart’s two.

The driving style of both Gordon and Stewart were quite similar; both excelled on 1- or 2-mile tracks. But even then, Gordon has the advantage, securing 38 victories to Stewart’s 22. Both also were quite adept at road courses, and Gordon takes the cake at nine wins to Stewart’s eight. They battle neck and neck with the win types until you look at Gordon’s record at superspeedways; he managed 29 to Stewart’s 12. Short tracks are about the same story, with Gordon securing 17 to Stewart’s seven.

Even though Gordon had a good handle on any track that he raced on, he really excelled at Martinsville Speedway. He took home the victory in nine out of the 47 races that he ran.

Even though his records still do not top Gordon’s for road courses, Stewart won the most at Watkins Glen International at five. His ability to maneuver a car through the left and right turns of these difficult tracks puts Stewart among the sports elite for this style of track.

A feat that Stewart was not able to accomplish was the No Bull 5, a contest that replaced the Winston Million and was based on the same idea and similar tracks. The new contest was a grand slam of four notable tracks: the Daytona 500 (the richest), the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (the fastest), the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (the longest) and the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (the oldest). Gordon won $1 million for winning the Winston Million, the second and final driver to do so.

Each of these drivers have made an impressive run in the sport; when you take a look at what they have done side by side, it is almost comical about how close their stats are in some cases. But in other cases, Gordon just blows it out of the water, and that’s what gives him the edge. -Erin Campbell

Tony Stewart

Prior to the 1999 Daytona 500, Tony Stewart was just a fresh face in the NASCAR Cup Series garage. Hardly anyone was familiar with the hotshot from Columbus, Indiana, who was just coming off of a successful stint in the IndyCar Series. But his name was well known outside NASCAR’s realms, and he was about to make a solid impression amongst his NASCAR peers right off the bat.

Stewart, a rookie driver for Joe Gibbs, qualified his famous bright orange No. 20 Pontiac on the outside of the front row with none other than the two-time defending champion, and today’s DvD challenger, Jeff Gordon. In the race, Stewart ran relatively well until he was struck with electrical issues around lap 115, spending multiple laps in the pits for repairs. From the pole, Gordon would win his second Daytona 500, while Stewart’s debut ended in a 28th-place finish, 19 laps down. But as the season continued, Stewart’s performance picked up tremendously. In his 25th start, Stewart would collect his first career Cup Series win at Richmond Raceway, following it up with wins at Phoenix Raceway and the inaugural series event at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In a total of three wins, 12 top fives, and 21 top tens, Stewart would end one of the best rookie seasons in modern series history with a fourth place points finish.

From then onward, the rest is clear cut history. In his fourth full-time season, Stewart sealed the deal and won his first Cup series championship in 2002 by 38 points over Mark Martin. He racked up another one in 2005. This was statistically his best season, with five wins (including his first Brickyard 400 win), 17 top five finishes, 25 top ten finishes and an average finish of 9.9. His third series championship in 2011 was another one not to be forgotten about, with Stewart’s five wins that season all coming in the final ten races, beating out Carl Edwards in an electrifying tiebreaker for the championship. Not to mention, he won that one as an owner-driver.

After winning these three championships, along with 49 wins, 187, top fives and 308 top tens, Stewart would end his decorated career in his 618th start at the 2016 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, finishing 22nd. Stewart ran 18 seasons in Cup, with 15 of them being full-time. He has only finished outside of the top ten in points twice in these 15 full time seasons, placing 11th in 2006 and 28th in 2015.

Stewart’s career could’ve seen more greatness if not for a few what-if’s. Injuries put a halt to his driving duties twice. In the summer of 2013, he broke his legs in a sprint car crash in Iowa, ending a streak of 521 consecutive starts and forcing him to miss the rest of the season. He also suffered a back injury in January 2016, forcing him to miss the first three months of his retirement season. And of course, his unexpected but understandable three-race absence following the tragic 2014 accident of Kevin Ward Jr. at the Land of Legends Raceway in Canandaigua, NY.

Stewart was also repeatedly snared by misfortune in the Daytona 500, a race he would never capture. In 2002, he blew his engine on the second lap. In 2004, he finished runner-up to Dale Earnhardt Jr. In 2007, he wrecked out of the lead with 50 laps remaining. In 2008, he led with a half lap to go, until Ryan Newman surged by him down the backstretch with assistance from Kurt Busch. Just shows that if any of these situations went one way or another differently, Stewart would have a Daytona 500 win on his resume.

The difference in age between Gordon and Stewart’s debuts also plays a role in their separate successes. Gordon made his Cup debut at age 21, while Stewart made his at age 27, thus giving Gordon six more years of executing his talent on the track. If Stewart had started his Cup series career around the same age as Gordon did, Stewart could have very well been in contention to score upwards of at least 70-80 career wins.

Finally, Stewart was able to prove his worth behind a diverse amount of racing vehicles. Just like Gordon, Stewart too grew up in Indiana, sharpening his skills behind the wheels of midgets and sprint cars. Stewart won the USAC midget rookie of the year in 1991, then captured the USAC midget championships in 1994 and 1995, as well as the coveted USAC Silver Crown Series championship in 1995. He’s one of just two drivers ever to win the USAC Triple Crown, winning the midget, silver crown and sprint car titles all in that ’95 season.

Stewart then progressed onto the IndyCar series, winning a race at Pikes Peak International Raceway and taking the 1997 series championship. He remains the only driver to win both IndyCar and Cup Series titles.

Being on the list of drivers to win in all three NASCAR series is another diversity-filled achievement as well.

There’s no question about the deep mark Stewart has left, not just on NASCAR, but on many other series too, both on and off the track. And even at his newly-acclaimed Hall of Fame status, Stewart is nowhere close to being done just yet. ~Jesse Johnston

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